Eastbourne tennis: Devonshire delights are back - not a moment too soon

Tennis at the Devonshire Park: perhaps not quite as we have known it previously, but on Saturday the grand Eastbourne grounds were open again. And all the old familiar faces, just a little older than in 2019, were thrilled to be back.

Sunday, 20th June 2021, 11:59 am
Updated Sunday, 20th June 2021, 12:00 pm
Fran Jones was one of the players to catch the eye on day one at Eastbourne / Picture: Charlie Crowhurst - Getty

Let’s take a stroll through Day One. There is something magical about those Devonshire Park courts, lush, shimmering, and a slightly deeper green than you expected. Even the walkways between the courts feel like carpet. It seems sacrilege to watch as players – unavoidably, of course – twist and scrape and make their mark. Ouch!

BBC sports editor Tim Durrans is keen to line up head groundsman Danny Negus for a crack-of-dawn interview on Monday’s Sussex Breakfast Show. Would he be available some time after 7am? “Oh, I’m on site a long time before seven!” Probably the best groundsman in England, certainly the most obliging – and possibly also the most modest.

For Danny and his team – which includes his own son – the months of work are reaching fruition, but he isn’t one to bask in any glory. “I don’t mind chatting about what we do – but that’s only because we want people to know what a great profession and career this is. Youngsters should be queueing up to get into it as a career. So many skills to learn!”

An artist at work / Picture: Charlie Crowhurst - Getty

You take Danny’s point. The artist who painted those glorious bold stripes on the side of the Towner - Lothar Götz, since you ask his name – earned international acclaim. The man who mows the immaculate stripes on Centre Court, just blends modestly with the crowds. If only they knew they were walking a mere two socially-distanced metres from genius…

For returning spectators and officials – so many of them volunteers – it feels as if a clock has restarted after two years of suspended time. Behind the obligatory masks there are smiles and warm words. The same stewards take up the same stations, directing a confused visitor and answering queries.

Only the weather was not quite playing ball. The previous day’s downpours had at least cleared, but a grey grudging dampness still hung in the early air. Cricketers would call it a two-sweater day. But by lunchtime the air felt noticeably warmer, spirits had lifted, and some cracking tennis was on show.

These first two days may nominally be “only” the qualifiers, but heck, they matter to the players. It’s the typical mixture at this early stage of a tournament: a clutch of young hopefuls, including several British wild cards, and a bedrock of established players whose recent record – in the relentless pursuit of points on the WTA and LTA tours – is not quite strong enough for a place in the main draw.

Sadly, most of the Brits on the day came off second best. Several were edged out by more seasoned opponents – with a notable exception of Sussex's Lui Maxted, who overcame Slovakia’s Norbert Gombos. But even in defeat the youngsters will have gained great tournament experience.

Eastbourne always attracts the best from across the world and this Viking International opening day was full of experienced and well-known names, even on Day One. Kristina Mladenovic, Camila Giorgi, Caroline Garcia – the latter falling to impressive American Shelby Rogers on Centre Court.

And earlier, the Centre Court had witnessed a definite Match of the Day.

Francesca (Fran) Jones is making her own rather special mark on the sport. Not yet 21, Fran has already chalked up some impressive victories at tournaments just below Eastbourne’s status. She is a fine, combative player – and a casual tennis watcher might not even be aware that she plays with a disability.

To be specific, Fran was born with only three fingers and a thumb on each hand, and with only seven toes in total. Now, some people, athletes or otherwise, might wear a disability like a badge. Others might dwell on it, or call it up as an excuse. Fran Jones just gets on with her tennis.

Allocated a wild card and pitched into the slightly daunting arena of Centre Court, Jones faced a formidable opponent in Croatian-born US player Pera. At 26, with masses of experience, She has nine singles and eight doubles titles to her name, and just a fortnight ago she reached the Grand Slam women’s doubles semi-final at Roland Garros.

From the very first game, no-fear Fran took on her experienced counterpart with a punchy, offensive policy. Both ladies were hitting the ball hard, and in particular producing ferocious returns of serve, arrowed low across the net and searching out the corners of the court. No safety shots, no passive defence. It was a treat to watch.

Pera, tall and athletic, levered herself ahead to take the first set 6-3. Then the second proved just as competitive, but even tighter. Both girls broke serve but were broken back, and we reached 5-5 with Jones fighting for her life and surviving four deuces – and then 6-6. The home crowd would have relished a third-set decider, but it was not to be, and Bernarda held her nerve to edge the tightest of tie-breaks for a straight sets victory. Fran Jones. Remember the name.